Wednesday, July 31, 2013

HEART LIKE MINE by Amy Hatvany

From the back cover:

Thirty-six-year-old Grace McAllister never longed for children. But when she meets Victor Hansen, a handsome, charismatic divorced restaurateur who is father to Max and Ava, Grace decides that, for the right man, she could learn to be an excellent part-time stepmom. After all, the kids live with their mother, Kelli. How hard could it be?

At thirteen, Ava Hansen is mature beyond her years. Since her parents’ divorce, she has been the one taking care of her emotionally unstable mother and her little brother—she pays the bills, does the laundry, and never complains because she loves her mama more than anyone. And while her father’s new girlfriend is nice enough, Ava still holds out hope that her parents will get back together and that they’ll be a family again.

But only days after Victor and Grace get engaged, Kelli dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances—and soon, Grace and Ava discover there was much more to Kelli’s life than either ever knew.

Narrated by Grace and Ava in the present with flashbacks into Kelli’s troubled past, Heart Like Mine is a poignant and hopeful portrait about womanhood, love, and the challenges of family life.

The alternating points of view took a little bit of getting used to. After that, it seemed like the only way to tell tell this story. 

I loved, loved, loved this book. The relationships are complicated; the characters are well drawn and accurately portrayed. You will fall in love with every single one of them: from Grace, in love with Victor, forever tied to his dead ex-wife due to the bonds with his children; to the children themselves, especially Ava, whose point of view is so beautifully portrayed. You will laugh, you will cry; you won't be able to stop turning the pages, and you won't want this book to end.

Read Amy Hatvany. You won't be sorry. Five enthusiastic stars! Highly recommended!

NOTE: I received a copy of this book for FREE in exchange for a written review. There was no expectation that this review be either positive or negative, and I was not given any financial compensation to read the book or write the review. This information is disclosed in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Things I Learned at RWA Nationals

A worm's eye view of the atrium of the Marriott Marquis, Atlanta
I had the privilege of attending the Romance Writers of America national conference, held at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, July 17-20. Every day since I've been home, I've taken a stab at blogging about this experience. Finally, I think enough time has passed that I have the perspective to summarize it succinctly. But it will take months to truly assimilate it.

Heck, it took me a week to get around to unpacking my suitcase - and putting away the dozens of books I brought home. Most of them were free, but I also splurged on several titles at the book signing, where I got to meet some of my favorite authors for the first time.
450+ authors. Thousands of fans.
I got my picture taken with Mary Kay Andrews to make my friend Jennifer jealous.
Pam Asberry and Mary Kay Andrews
And I got my picture taken with Nora to make EVERYONE jealous.
Nora Roberts and Pam Asberry
I even got my picture taken with our awards luncheon keynote speaker, Kristan Higgins. She is as witty, warm and wonderful as one would guess from reading her books.
Kristan Higgins and Pam Asberry
I had a lovely room with a king-size bed all to myself. But I didn't spend much time there.
My view of the city of Atlanta.
There were dinners and parties to attend.
Mai Tai!
Trader Vic's with my Petit Fours and Hot Tamales blog sisters.
Dancing the night away at Georgia Romance Writers' Gothic Masquerade.
Chocolate mousse!
And the workshops! With offerings on craft, career, self-publishing, writer's life, research, and author/agent/editor panels, there was something for everyone.
Jude Deveraux and Pam Asberry
As expected, some of the advice was conflicting. I heard from plotters and pantsers, people who have found success in self-publishing and people who firmly believe in going to the traditional route. Everyone said we would have to learn to sift through it all, gleaning what resonated and tossing out the rest. But there was one universal truth: in order to sell a book, it must have great characters, a compelling story, and an emotional appeal. This doesn't happen by magic; writing, revising and polishing are essential - meaning that we must make writing a daily priority. 

The bottom line? This is a business that does not provide instant gratification. Discipline and consistency are key.

I took pages and pages of notes, bought the conference recordings so I can catch up later on some of the great workshops I missed, and look forward to keeping up with new friends on Facebook and Twitter. Most of all, I came back with a renewed commitment to doing whatever it takes to make my dream of being a traditionally published novelist come true.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE EDGE OF THE EARTH by Christina Schwarz

A fascinating story with enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish!

From the dust jacket:

Trudy, who can argue Kant over dinner and play a respectable portion of Mozart's Serenade in G major, has been raised to marry her childhood friend and assume a live of bourgeois comfort in Milwaukee. She knows she should be pleased, but she's restless instead, yearning for something she lacks even the vocabulary to articulate. When she falls in love with enigmatic and ambitious Oskar, she believes she's found her escape from the banality of her preordained life.

But escape turns out to be more fraught than Trudy had imagined. Alienated from family and friends, the couple moves across the country to take a job at a lighthouse at Point Lucia, California - an unnervingly isolated outcropping, trapped between the ocean and hundreds of miles of inaccessible wilderness. There they meet the light station's only inhabitants - the formidable and guarded Crawleys. In this unfamiliar place, Trudy will find that nothing is as she might have predicted, especially after she discovers what hides among the rocks.

It is impossible not to admire Trudy, who is sacrifices her home, friends and family to seek a life of adventure with the charming but troubled Oskar. At first, she is overwhelmed with the isolation of her surroundings, homesickness, and concerns over her husband's increasingly erratic behavior. But as time goes by, she becomes accustomed to the rhythm of the days and begins to lets go of the conventions of her former life. Eventually, she comes to befriend the Crawleys and becomes their children's teacher, helping them learn to read, write and do sums. In turn, they teach her about the sea creatures that surround them. Together, they begin to identify and catalogue the rich variety of flora and fauna.

As time goes by, Trudy begins to understand that her husband is nothing but a dreamer with great ideas but lack of ability to see his projects through from beginning to end. When he comes up with a scheme to achieve fame through the exploitation of a native woman who lives in a cave nearby, Trudy is forced to choose between the man she loves and doing what she believes is right. Her last-minute decision affects the lives of everyone on the island and irrevocably changes the course of her own life.

This book has it all: history, science, romance, suspense, an irresistible setting and a great cast of characters. It will transport you far away from your everyday life and keep you turning the pages, reluctant to return when you reach the end. Five stars! Recommended!

 NOTE: I received a copy of this book for FREE in exchange for a written review. There was no expectation that this review be either positive or negative, and I was not given any financial compensation to read the book or write the review. This information is disclosed in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Banana Blueberry Muffins

Banana Blueberry Muffins
I am on a modified version of the Paleo diet. One that includes cheese. And eggs. And grains.

Okay, so I'm not eating Paleo at all. But I am making lean meat and seafood, fruits and vegetables the mainstay of my diet, with a sprinkle of cheese and a hard boiled egg here and there. And when I go for grains, I make sure they are unrefined.

So last week when I had a hankering for Banana Blueberry Muffins, I modified Martha Stewart's recipe. Click HERE to read the original; my version is below.

WHOLE GRAIN BANANA BLUEBERRY MUFFINS

1 3/4 cup freshly milled white wheat flour
1/4 cup oat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
2 large ripe bananas
1/3 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup fresh (or frozen) blueberries

STEP 1
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. In a bowl, whisk together flours, wheat germ, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

STEP 2
In a large bowl, beat oil and sugars with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In another bowl, mash bananas with a fork (you should have 3/4 cup); stir in almond milk and vanilla.

STEP 3
With mixer on low, alternately add flour mixture and banana mixture to oil mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture; mix just until combined. Fold in blueberries.

STEP 4
Divide batter among muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, approximately 25 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Let cool in pan 10 minutes; transfer muffins to a rack to cool 10 minutes more.

NOTE: I found this recipe yielded 15 muffins. So be prepared with an extra muffin pan, just in case!

Monday, July 15, 2013

I feel pretty!

Michelle, ma belle
You might not be able to tell this by looking at me, but I am fascinated by the world of hair, make-up and fashion. The thing is, I like to wear make-up but I don't like to look "made up," and I am terrible at choosing colors in the drugstore. I don't have a skin care regimen, and the tinted moisturizer, pink powder blush, eyeliner and mascara I have used for years just weren't cutting it anymore, especially now that I am a redhead--besides the fact that, during my recent de-cluttering spree, I got rid of all the cosmetics that were past their expiration date, leaving very little left to play with anyway. So when my eldest son's girlfriend Michelle Alexander shared her latest venture with me, blogging for lovelyish.com, I dove in and caught up on everything she has written so far.

Michelle is a wonderful writer. Reading one of her warm, conversational posts is like getting the low-down from your BFF. In fact, she exudes such confidence and expertise that I couldn't stop myself from venturing out yesterday afternoon in search of some of the products she recommends.

Especially intriguing was the Bobbi Brown 'Extra' SPF Tinted Moisturizing Balm (click HERE to read Michelle's blog post on this amazing product). I loved the idea of an alternative to foundation that provides intense moisture as well as SPF protection. So I walked bare-faced into my local Nordstrom with the intention of grabbing whichever tint the sales clerk recommended and running with it. Things did not, however, go according to plan. I loved the moisturizing balm so much--it really lives up to the hype--that I begged my charming, low-key stylist to give me a complete makeover. She applied corrector, concealer, pot rouge for cheeks and lips, a brightening brick compact for highlights on my cheeks and eyes, a shimmering neutral lip gloss, and a purple eye pencil so soft it safely lined the inside of my upper lid, making my green eyes pop like they never have before. My skin was positively glowing; the overall effect was soft and feminine. I couldn't stop looking at myself in the mirror.

The products sold themselves. I bought them all.


She also gave me generous samples of cleanser, toner, eye cream and moisturizers to bring home and try.


I felt positively glamorous. I floated off to the nail salon for a much needed pedicure, then to CVS for a few more of Michelle's recommendations (click HERE for her "current summer drug store crushes"). Home at last, I soaked in a bubble bath, opened my new bottle of Vaseline Cocoa Butter Vitalizing Body Gel Oil and slathered it all over my body, took care of my face (even though it hurt just a little bit to wash off all that pretty make-up), and brushed and flossed my teeth.

When it was time for bed, I slipped between the sheets like a pampered princess. I slept better than I have slept in weeks.

For a link to all of Michelle's delightful posts, click HERE. Let me know if you try any of her suggestions; meanwhile, feel free to share your own favorite brands or products.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

THE J.M. BARRIE LADIES' SWIMMING SOCIETY by Barbara J. Zitwer

From the back cover:

Joey is in the Cotswalds to oversee the restoration of the Stanway House – the stately home that inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan.  The project is far from easy.  The local residents aren’t entirely welcoming, and the brooding caretaker of the house seems to take every opportunity to undermine her plans.   Soon Joey begins to feel she cannot do anything right.

Until, that is, Joey discovers the J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, a group of women whom she joins on their daily dip in their own private Neverland.  For Joey, meeting Aggie, Gala, Lilia and their friends is a life-changing experience, the beginning of a friendship that will transform her in the most remarkable of ways.

I enjoyed this book very much. On the heels of a break-up, Joey has nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking on this project for her architecture firm. In addition to making the acquaintance of the J.M. Barrie Ladies' Swimming Society, she reconnects with a childhood friend whose life has followed a very different path and establishes a relationship with a headstrong teenager. And, of course, there is a love story.

That said, I wish this novel had gone deeper in many ways: into the lives of the elderly women, certainly, but also into the connection with J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan. Also, I discovered several grammatical and typographical errors which made me a bit crazy.

But for a lighthearted summer read with a taste of British life, a bit of history, and a satisfying romance, you can't go wrong with this book. Four stars! Recommended!

NOTE: I received a copy of this book for FREE in exchange for a written review. There was no expectation that this review be either positive or negative, and I was not given any financial compensation to read the book or write the review. This information is disclosed in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Soggy Fourth


I love everything about the fourth of July: its origins, its symbolism, the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, the cookouts, the fireworks.

But this year I missed getting my name in the lottery for the Peachtree, my family cookout got rained out, and the local fireworks display was canceled due to the weather. Oh, that didn't stop my neighbors from detonating fireworks. My poor dog is huddled under my bed whimpering as I type this blog post. But instead of celebrating my nation's birthday, I spent the day reading, writing, playing the piano, eating junk food and drinking wine. Meaning things could definitely be worse.

I know the good ol' U. S. of A. is facing a lot of challenges these days. But there isn't a place in the world I would rather be.

I hope your fourth of July was a happy one!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS by Karen Brown

Combining elements of mystery and suspense with an exploration of the themes of friendship, mother-daughter relationships, marriage and infidelity, this book is the ultimate page-turner. From the back cover:

It’s an idyllic New England summer, and Sadie is a precocious only child on the edge of adolescence. It seems like July and August will pass lazily by, just as they have every year before. But one day, Sadie and her best friend play a seemingly harmless prank on a neighborhood girl. Soon after, that same little girl disappears from a backyard barbecue—and she is never seen again. Twenty years pass, and Sadie is still living in the same quiet suburb. She’s married to a good man, has two beautiful children, and seems to have put her past behind her. But when a boy from her old neighborhood returns to town, the nightmares of that summer will begin to resurface, and its unsolved mysteries will finally become clear.

While I didn't find Sadie as sympathetic as some heroines, I could certainly understand how she turned out the way she did. Growing up in an idyllic suburb of Connecticut, this daughter of a vain, alcoholic mother and an indifferent father is forced to practically raise herself. As the story weaves itself between past and present, the summers of 1974 and 1979 and then 2003, we begin to understand Sadie's grief, sorrows and longings. When her much-wanted infant is stillborn, she goes off the deep end and falls into the arms of Ray Filley, a shadowy character from her youth. As events unfold, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine a positive outcome for Sadie or her family. Which is why this book will keep you on the edge of your seat from its dramatic opening to its disturbing but ultimately satisfying conclusion! Five stars!

NOTE: I received a copy of this book for FREE in exchange for a written review. There was no expectation that this review be either positive or negative, and I was not given any financial compensation to read the book or write the review. This information is disclosed in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On the Road Again


Today I'm blogging over at Petit Fours and Hot Tamales with an update on my summer de-cluttering projects: home, body and mind. I hope you will stop by and say hello!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Piano Care and Maintenance 101


My thirty year old upright piano is the latest beneficiary of my deep cleaning and repair obsession.

Everyone knows that an acoustic piano must be tuned regularly by a qualified technician. What I didn't understand until very recently is that they also need periodic voicing and regulation. This involves adjustment of the mechanical aspects of the instrument - hammers, dampers, and keys - to compensate for the effects of wear, age and temperature and humidity.

Last week, my technician removed the insides of my upright piano and took the pieces back to her studio to do the necessary work. I know this will make a huge difference in how well the instrument will play and sound when it is put back together. My grand piano has irrevocably replaced it in my affections but I still use the upright as my primary teaching instrument so I want it to be the best it can possibly be. Also, a colleague and I planning a piano duo recital in the fall of 2014; what a delight it will be to practice together on two acoustic pianos!